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Bill Dance: The First Fishing Superstar

Celebrated Tennessean parlayed his fishing prowess and folksy wit into an outdoor media empire.

Bill Dance: The First Fishing Superstar

There are legends in the sport of fishing, and then there’s Bill Dance.

If you’ve ever so much as put a worm on a hook with visions of catching a fish, you have probably heard of him. In fact, if you grew up without a strong fishing influence in your family, there’s a good chance that watching Dance’s show on random Saturdays is what inspired you to get your hands on a second-hand rod and reel and bait that hook in the first place.

Dance was dominant as a tournament angler, but it was our good luck that in the late 1960s he decided to parlay his competitive accomplishments into what would become arguably the most successful television franchise in the history of outdoor programming. And it’s no exaggeration to say that in the process he – by way of Bill Dance Outdoors programming – has likely introduced more Americans to recreational fishing than anyone in history. Period.

Don’t believe it? Try getting his autograph at an announced appearance at a trade show. The line will stretch for an eternity, and people will happily spend a substantial portion of their day waiting for the moment they can shake his weathered hand, sheepishly ask him to autograph a hat and grin for photos like they just reconnected with their high-school best friend. Moments later, the pictures are proudly shared on Instagram and Facebook, and probably texted to all their fishing buddies, not to mention their parents and grandparents.

It's been said that you should never meet your heroes because they’re sure to disappoint. Thankfully that’s not how people feel after meeting Bill Dance. He greets people with a warmth and genuine interest that makes you believe you just shook hands with a modern-day Will Rogers. If anything, most will likely come away admiring Dance even more, if that’s possible, and count the few minutes they spent with the legend among the highlights of their angling lives.

Like so many other great anglers, Dance credits one specific fish with fully igniting his passion for fishing. He was 7 years old, he said, and his grandmother told him that she and his grandfather were going to take him fishing at a lake near their hometown of Lynchburg, Tennessee. As an active outdoor child growing up in the late 1940s, Dance had spent countless days fishing the local creeks, and routinely stopped in the town’s hardware store to covet a certain jitterbug lure that sat inside a glass case. The day before the trip, his grandmother, who knew well how badly he wanted the lure, reached into her apron pocket where she kept some loose change and counted out three silver quarters, and gave her assent with a silent nod.

“You didn’t have Bass Pro, you didn’t have Cabela’s,” Dance said. “The one place you could buy tackle in those days was the hardware store.”

With the money in hand, he ran all the way there, and breathlessly put the money on the counter. “I’m buying that lure today,” Dance told the shopkeeper.

All the way to the lake, Dance would ask how much farther every few miles. When they finally arrived, he ran off on his own to find a likely spot. About 50 yards from where his grandmother was spreading a blanket for a picnic lunch, he found a clear, spring-fed pool, and quickly spied two largemouth bass, the greater of which weighed probably a little over two pounds, Dance said. He said a quick, silent prayer and made his cast. The bait landed 10 or 12 feet from the fish, which heard the splash and started chasing.

“Then that two-and-a-quarter pounder just blasted that little piece of aluminum and plastic – this little artificial thing – that I was trying to give life to,” Dance said. “And it was an amazing sight, and the most wonderful thing I’d ever felt in my life. I had goosebumps all over.”

The fish fought hard, but once Dance finally got it to the bank, he abandoned his prize rod and lure on the ground and ran yelling for his grandparents with his catch proudly in hand. Dance refused to let go of it until his grandfather had secured it with not one but two different chain stringers. They hadn’t thought to bring a camera with them, so the photo of this life-altering fish didn’t take place until later that evening in Dance’s grandmother’s kitchen.

“That fight was the most remarkable thing, and I had never experienced anything like it,” Dance said. “And I sat right there and said to myself ‘I don’t know how, and I don’t know how long, but someday I want to be involved in this business in some way.’”

It turns out, he hasn’t so much involved as he has been a central figure, or perhaps even freshwater fishing’s most popular and revered statesman. As a tournament angler Dance not only helped write the early chapters of modern professional bass fishing – catching the first fish in B.A.S.S. history – he was competitive force of nature. Despite retiring from competition in 1980 at the tender age of 39, he won 23 national tournament championships, qualified for and fished in eight out of nine possible Bassmaster Classics, was a three-time B.A.S.S. Angler of the Year (including the very first ever awarded), won seven of the first 17 tournaments he entered and out of 78 career B.A.S.S. tournaments entered he finished in the money an astounding 64 times.

As a television personality and producer, however, he has left an even bigger mark. Since his first show on Memphis ABC affiliate WHBQ on January 5, 1968, Dance has gifted the world more than 2,000 episodes of Bill Dance Outdoors, with stints on ESPN, TNN, Outdoor Life Network and NBC Sports, to name just a few. He’s also authored or coauthored 13 books on fishing and been a regular contributor to a host of different publications.

Though he’s been a public figure for well over 50 years now, Dance gives no indication that he’s anywhere close to retirement and Bill Dance Outdoors is slated to run 26 freshwater and 13 saltwater original episodes in 2023.

With that kind of success, accolades are inevitable, and Dance has been inducted into numerous prestigious halls of fame, including the International Game Fish Association Hall of Fame, the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame, the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame and of course the Professional Bass Fishing Hall of Fame.

If you’re at all familiar with Dance, you know that he wears a University of Tennessee logoed ball cap practically anytime he’s in public or on camera and has done so ever since the late 1960s when he was gifted a few such hats by then-UT football coach Doug Dickey. His relationship with UT has remained strong through the decades, and in 2021 Dance was presented with an Honorary Doctorate of Natural Resources from the University of Tennessee in recognition of his extensive achievements and contributions, as well as his tireless ambassadorship for the state. And as a favorite son of Tennessee, Dance is currently working with Gov. Bill Lee and the state’s Wildlife Resources Agency to improve and promote 18 lakes that will forever be known as Bill Dance Signature Lakes. About $15 million has been earmarked for infrastructure and fisheries improvements at the lakes to increase tourism and responsible usage at the designated lakes, as well as honor the legacy of the man who has brought so much positive attention to the state.

Dance has been married to his beloved wife, Dianne, for more than 60 years and the two raised four children: Bill Jr., Paul, Patrick and Pamela. Along the way he’s fished with or otherwise befriended U.S. presidents, sports icons such as NFL Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw and heavyweight champion box Joe Frazier, country music artists such as Luke Bryan and Hank Williams Jr., and virtually every marine or fishing industry giant you could possibly name, including his dear friend Johnny Morris, founder of the Bass Pro Shops empire.

But when it comes to memorable accomplishments and moments in his life, Dance doesn’t even mention the tournament wins, industry honors, TV shows or famous friends. No, his greatest memories aren’t reflected in a trophy case or a plaque in some hall.

“The one thing that stands out is being there when each one of my children caught their first fish, and watching that excitement,” he said. “And then being there when five of my grandchildren caught their first fish.

“Those are the ones that stand out. Life has been good to Bill and Dianne Dance.”

For more information on Bill Dance and Bill Dance Outdoors click here.

Bill Dance: The First Fishing Superstar
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